As a kid, I was obsessed with larger-than-life figures. Why settle for Batman, who merely represented the upper limit of human potential, when you could have Superman, who wasn't human at all? Every battle had to be a clash of the titans; every encounter had to be like something out of Erik Larsen's Savage Dragon comic series, which consists of nothing but fistfights between enormous alpha beasts. Even when it came to sports, I wanted to watch only the strangest of the best: mutants, freaks, cyborgs, and other hyper-real specimens competing against one another in arenas where the normal laws of physics were suspended.
And no, I'm not talking about performance-enhanced athletes like baseball outfielder Barry Bonds and UFC heavyweight Alistair Overeem, although both were impressive at their respective sports. I'm talking about the bizarre characters that populated early-1990s games such as EA Sports' Mutant League titles, Konami's Base Wars, and SNK/Tradewest's Super Baseball 2020. I used to live and die for games like these, even if they weren't always all that great, and only with the passage of time and Maddens (Madden 2016 marks the 2016th instalment of that series, I believe) have I been able to realise why.
This isn't specifically an examination of sports games, which thanks to the likes of EA and 2K Games have reached a once-unimaginable level of development, or of games involving monsters and robots, of which the same might also be said. In point of fact, gaming today is better than it's ever been: the competitive games are the most balanced, the retro-styled games are superior to the ones that inspired them, and even the worst releases don't descend into Action 52 territory. All that the contemporary video game market of slick sequels and perfectly crafted remakes might be said to lack are limitations. In other words, when almost everything is possible, not everything seems worth attempting.
Once upon a time, Electronic Arts published without much fanfare every manner of game: a few were good, a few were bad, and most were simply oddball offerings that fell somewhere in-between. Madden, its various NBA playoff simulations, and NHLPA (later simply NHL, once both the league and player association licenses were acquired) ranked among the company's best releases during the early 90s; Mutant League Football and Mutant League Hockey added a considerable amount of gameplay variety to Madden and NHLPA, respectively. The Mutant League franchise also happened to originally be exclusive to the SEGA Genesis/Mega Drive, because SEGA, despite its 16bit system being inferior in many respects to the Super Nintendo, far exceeded Nintendo in its willingness to license "Mature Audiences" games (the first Mortal Kombat for the SNES didn't even have blood!).
Now imagine this happening today: EA or 2K looks at one of its signature franchises and says, "hey, let's Space Jam the heck out of this!" It's inconceivable. Yes, there's a pretty good Blood Bowl high fantasy football remake available via Steam, but that's not a signature property of any kind and, though quite good, is really just a colourful visualisation of Games Workshop dice rules. And yeah, you might still see something like NFL Street, but that sort of gameplay isn't exactly on par with Mutant League Football's all-everything star Bones Jackson accidentally killing a referee during a pileup.
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Mutant League Football is one of those aforementioned very good EA games, by the way. It spawned an animated series and should've kept generating medium-budget sequels right up to the present (though it should be noted that Mutant League Football creator Michael Mendheim is trying to piece together a DIY follow-up). But it didn't, and neither did Mutant League Hockey – which was even more fun to play, in principal part because the NHLPA series on which it was modelled was perhaps the best 16bit sports simulation ever created. The Mutant League games constituted bricolage at its finest, their development perhaps born out of necessity yet nevertheless capturing and then distilling the cartoonish essence of professional sports: demon goalies exploding into flames, slug zambonis eating the dead bodies of fallen players, defensemen brandishing horsewhips, right wings wielding chainsaws. We don't just want to see amazing feats from our pro athletes – for them, the amazing is commonplace. We want to see ludicrous ones, which is why the WWE remains a billion-dollar business and the Harlem Globetrotters have been around for nearly a century.
In that vein, Konami's Base Wars imagines a dystopian baseball future in which owners have decided to cease meeting the salary demands of their ostensibly overpaid players and replaced them with a variety of high-performance robots (the game is set in the 2400s; some recent research suggests that automation may lead to the replacement of vast swathes of the workforce far earlier than that). The game features a lot of Konami-style theatrics, including fights between fielders and baserunners that call to mind the widescreen set-tos in its classic NES hockey title Blades of Steel. In some ways, the limitations of the NES maximise the value of Base Wars' vivid colours and choppy movements: it's much easier to track the fluorescent futuristic ball in this game than it is to follow the regulation baseball in the R.B.I. Baseball series.
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Base Wars wasn't anything special: I rented it many times, and it usually held my attention for a game or three, but it wasn't transcendent. Which is fine; not every video game needs to be the best you've ever played. SNK's Super Baseball 2020, set in the fast approaching but still space age-sounding year 2020, is more ambitious and a bit better. In my youthful naïveté, I assumed that the latter was a sequel to Base Wars, failing to realise that Base Wars' backstory is set several hundred years after both Super Baseball 2020 and the events of the Mass Effect series. Super Baseball 2020 straddles the line between past and present: both male and female cyborgs as well as Base Wars-type robots are available as players, with the chief difference between the two being the fact that robots can explode from overuse. You can actually earn money and enhance your players in real time over the course of a nine-inning game, a feature I wish had been included in one of the many Major League Baseball releases of the past decade (for example, Jose Canseco or Sammy Sosa slips away to the locker room for a celebratory shot of testosterone after cranking a tape-measure home run). It too lacks the replay value of the Mutant League games, but there's still something here that isn't present in most of today's sports offerings.
What you had in these four games, as well as in related releases like Pigskin 621 A.D. (Pigskin Footbrawl on the Genesis) and slightly more conventional games such as NBA Jam and NFL Blitz, was organised sport not simulated perfectly, as is the case today, but boiled down to its primal, ludic elements. These were sports-as-games, intended solely as wild fun because there wasn't yet the technical know-how to provide more than that. Real sports, the sports on which these games were modelled, evolved more slowly albeit in a similar vein: efficient record-keeping and scientific training ended the golden age of impossible, sui generis athletes like boxing champion Jack Johnson and Yankees star Babe Ruth. We can't go back, because the Maddens can only advance in quality and sophistication with each annual roster update, but we should pause occasionally to consider what has been lost.
All bets are off when it comes to rugby, of course. There's never been a rugby game that wasn't utter rubbish, and as long as there remains no easy way to model ruck mechanics, there never will be. Sigh.
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